Turmoil for an industry built on immigration

A heart and head issue causes migraines.
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Peter Romeo

Director of Digital Content

View more articles by Peter Romeo

Before we get to the brawling—and there’s always a humdinger over this topic—let’s be sure we have the sides set.

To the right are the people convinced illegal immigrants are a drain on our society, freeloaders who want the benefits of citizenship without the trouble of securing it legally. They’re taking a shortcut that’s despicable and should be sent back to their country of origin for a legal do-over, regardless of how unfeasible that might be.

To the left are the sympathizers, the ones who contend you can’t right one wrong with a second one, and that it’d be unconscionable to split up families, uproot de facto Americans and wallop the economy by yanking out a huge swath of consumers and workers. We should let bygones be bygones, swallow the illegality and push on.

Lost in the yelling is the third group, where a lot of restaurateurs find themselves, and where more should be. Remember that alien turf known as the middle? It’s where you can see valid points in the opposing arguments of the extremists, and know there’s some truth and untruth spewing from both.

The restaurant industry has a unique perspective on the issue. The trade is built on immigrants the way the auto industry depends on tires. More than 23% of the restaurant workforce is foreign-born, and the figures are even higher for managers (25%) and chefs (43%), according to the National Restaurant Association. Roughly one in three restaurants and hotels in the U.S. is immigrant-owned, the NRA says, and Hispanics alone account for 17% of quick-service traffic and 12% of casual-dining visits, reports Univision.

Overlay those stats with observations about the industry’s leadership. Foreign-born talents head three of the largest players: McDonald’s (Steve Easterbrook), Dunkin’ Brands (Nigel Travis) and Yum Brands (Greg Creed). The national brouhaha erupted as the industry mourned a pioneer, second-generation Macedonian Mike Ilitch, and noted the appointment of a chairman for its big convention in May, Iranian refugee and one-time Turkish political prisoner Atour Eyvazian.

If all the immigrants eating, working or managing in restaurants had arrived through legal channels, we’d be warming up the pipes for a blockbuster remake of “We Are the World.” But the industry’s worst-kept secret is that legalities are often ignored in their entry into the workforce, then overlooked again because worker and employer need each other so direly.

The match that sets fire to gasoline is the question, What should be done about it? We were reminded of the debate’s incendiary nature when we wrote an online story about A Day Without Immigrants, a 24-hour stretch when immigrants were encouraged to flex their economic might by skipping work and not spending a dime. 

Our Facebook page erupted in ugly name-calling. I was told I was stupid for not understanding the boycott only really applied to illegal immigrants, when that patently wasn’t the case. Some suggested the event was merely a mass no-show that should have gotten all participants fired, not covered as if they were heroes.

The problem with any discussion of illegal immigration is the clash it sets up between moral and legal convictions. It’s a heart and head issue, and even restaurants have trouble reconciling the polar positions.

From our perspective, the industry should consider a principle put forth more than a decade ago by longtime chain leader Dick Rivera. He suggested a plea bargain for illegal immigrants; they don’t get off scot-free, but the legal and financial hurdles they need to clear for legitimacy can’t be beyond their reach. And deportation is not a viable first step.

We call on the industry to get behind that idea and push it, as a business with a closer perspective than most and an unusual amount to win or lose. In this case, the high ground is that turf in the middle.

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